As protests erupted around the country late Saturday in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, many of his key White House staff left for the black-tie Alfalfa Club dinner—but not his top adviser, Stephen Bannon, who stayed behind at the White House with the president, according to a senior White House official.
In the 10 days since Trump’s inauguration, Bannon — the former head of Breitbart News — has rapidly amassed power in the West Wing, eclipsing chief of staff Reince Priebus, who was among those at the Alfalfa Club event. Along with charting the early direction of the Trump administration, he’s been named to a seat on the National Security Council, giving him a part in the nation’s most sensitive intelligence operations.
Bannon and senior presidential adviser Stephen Miller helped lay the political and ideological foundations for Trump’s rise before Trump came on the scene. Breitbart was instrumental in promoting the idea that establishment Republican lawmakers had betrayed American workers on issues like immigration and trade, a theme Trump rode to victory in November.
They’ve been responsible for setting an “action plan” for Trump’s first weeks in the White House, developing executive orders and memoranda and deciding when Trump would sign each new document, according to people familiar with the process.
The plan has so far produced executive actions weakening Obamacare, beefing up immigration enforcement, and freezing federal hiring — and on preventing refugees and visa-holders from majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
“He’s telling Trump that he can do everything he said he would do on the campaign trail,” said a person close to the administration.
That’s won Bannon the president’s favor, and endeared him to his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. Rather than telling Trump what he can’t do, Bannon — a self-made multimillionaire who Trump sees as a peer rather than as an employee, according to people familiar with their relationship — has positioned himself alongside Trump as an enemy of the Washington establishment, including the Republican Party.
During the transition, Bannon stayed away from many of the lower-level hiring decisions and avoided staff meetings where others attended, instead focusing on shaping the Cabinet. He was “integral” in the process of selecting Trump’s appointees, one person close to the team said.
Unlike some of Trump’s other advisers, Bannon doesn’t often appear on television or go to Washington dinners. He swears frequently and often dresses more casually than most White House staff, and generally seems most comfortable huddling with Trump privately or standing off to the side during large meetings.
“He has a great understanding of the American public and why Trump won the election, and he tells Trump about what people are really upset about and what they’re really concerned about,” said former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. And, Giuliani added, “Trump generally agrees with him.”
Bannon’s rise has worried Trump’s critics because he led Breitbart, which associates itself with the alt-right and groups supporting nationalism and other fringe beliefs. After he was hired in the White House, the Southern Poverty Law Center called him “the main driver behind Breitbart becoming a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill.” Bannon and his friends have denied the attacks and say he is not racist or anti-Semitic.
At Bannon’s right hand is Miller, a close ideological ally who traveled with Trump almost constantly during the campaign, forging a close bond with him and even introducing Trump at rallies.
Together, Bannon and Miller wrote Trump’s inaugural address. Since his swearing in, they’ve pushed Trump to take his most combative stances, particularly toward the media.
Both of the men have sometimes clashed with other Republican and White House staffers, who have accused them of keeping information from others. And other White House aides have worried that their policies are being implemented too quickly with little planning. Yet Trump seems to appreciate both men.
“Steve mastered [Trump’s] voice,” said the person close to the administration, referring to Miller. “He takes him stuff he knows the president will like, and he puts it in words the president will want to say.”
The working relationship between Bannon and Miller stretches back to 2013, when Miller was an aide to Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who’s now Trump’s nominee for attorney general. The two worked together to scuttle the Gang of Eight immigration reform bill, which many Republicans thought was a done deal in the wake of Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, when the party was focused on reaching out to Latino voters.
Miller provided Breitbart a constant flow of information designed to undermine the bill, which surfaced in articles on the website and ricocheted through Washington. The general thrust presaged Trump’s campaign with the argument that comprehensive immigration reform was orchestrated by a cadre of elites—politicians, CEOs, special interests — with an interest in importing cheap foreign labor, and at the expense of American workers.
The immigration reform bill ultimately died after House Speaker John Boehner refused to bring it to the floor for a vote.
On Sunday, #StopPresidentBannon was trending on Twitter as protests raged at airports across the country in reaction to Friday’s executive order prohibiting Syrian refugees and travelers from seven Muslim countries from entering the United States as well as Bannon’s elevation to the NSC.
The president’s sharpest critics seized on Bannon’s addition to the NSC as another sign Trump will take a hard-right approach to governing.
“Steve Bannon is not on the White House staff for his national security expertise,” said Paul Begala, a former political adviser to President Bill Clinton. “He’s there because he was a successful publisher of what he describes as a platform for the alt-right, which is part of Trump’s base. That’s politics. There should be no seat at the table at the NSC for that person.”
President George W. Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove—often referred to as “Bush’s brain” and seen as an aide with massive influence over the president—was prohibited by Bush from attending national security meetings. President Barack Obama’s political adviser, David Axelrod, said in an interview that he’d occasionally observe meetings in the Situation Room, but “there were occasions where I was expressly told I could not attend.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, reached back to Harry Hopkins, a close political adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who had a hand in influencing policy during World War II, to find an example of a political aide influencing national security policy to a similar degree.
“If Trump trusts his instincts and judgment, it’s a perfectly legitimate plan,” Gingrich said in an interview. “Bannon thinks about strategy all the time, and a large part of the NSC is about strategy.” Gingrich also pointed out that Bannon is a former naval officer, a talking point that was repeated by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, as a reason he is qualified for the role.
Another former naval officer, Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain, disputed that view, calling it a “radical departure” to elevate a political adviser while diminishing the role of the joint chiefs of staff. “I am worried about the National Security Council,” he said Sunday on Face the Nation.
With Tara Palmeri and Shane Goldmacher